All previous chapters of this book were written prior to September 11, 2001, the events of which serve to underline the irresistible potency of culture and the enduring grip of history.
The explosive occurrences of that fateful day were hardly anomalous when viewed as sequential episodes in a continuing series of retaliations to perceived wrongs. What was inevitably exceptional (and deeply shocking to Westerners and Muslims alike) was the unsurpassed concentration of evil intent behind the annihilation of close to four thousand of God’s creatures in the space of a couple of hours. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—this is a maxim that has weathered well in most cultures and religions for several millennia, but the sickening attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon and the failed attack that crashed in rural Pennsylvania were heart-stoppers for people of all creeds. If there is any comfort to be gleaned from September 11, it is the hope that it might call a halt to a specific variety of madness.
As we have indicated in chapter 3, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all originated in the same part of the world, roughly in the same era, and share a plethora of principles, laws, core beliefs, and even prophets. If we compare these religions with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto, we see how different the three monotheistic religions are from Eastern religions—and how similar they are to each other. Yet the rivalry between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and the heights of bitterness to which they currently aspire threatens to tear the world apart. People in the Far East, less involved in such religious rivalries, must sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about.
The September 11 attack has been deemed by a majority of governments and authorities as an act of terrorism, not the outset of a war between Muslims and the West, or indeed between Islam and Christianity. Others, including some scholars, have, however, declared that it is the onset of a religious conflict. We must hope the latter are wrong. In this respect the general condemnation of the attack by a congress of fifty-six Muslim states is timely and comforting. If Islamic authorities resist the concept of a worldwide religious conflict (and eventual conflagration), it is essential that the West not fall into the trap of envisaging perpetual Muslim conspiracy and hatred. Avoidance of this trap is best served by looking closely at the history of Christian-Muslim interaction. What it contains is arguably more good than bad.
No single event in world history during the millennium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the European voyages of discovery was more significant than the rise of Islam. By the end of the sixth century A.D. the once-mighty empires of Rome and Persia were exhausted, both riven by religious dissent. Muhammad, born in Mecca in A.D. 570, is considered by Muslims as the last and greatest of the long line of prophets. Islam, emanating from the teachings of Muhammad, became the newest and last of the three major monotheistic religions. By 625 the new religion, with its message of compassion and mercy, began to expand to the Fertile Crescent and beyond. The vitality of the Arab conquerors as they surged through Arabia and Palestine, then east to the Tigris and the Euphrates and into Asia Minor and Persia, was the driving force behind their military victories. From the beginning of their expansion, however, the spiritual conquests of Islam rivaled, possibly exceeded, the conquests on the battlefield. Muslim principles were firmly codified in the Qu’ran and were warmly embraced by poor and underprivileged peoples throughout the region.
Initially, Islam was not a proselytizing religion. Muhammad showed great respect for Christianity and Judaism. He regarded their prophets, from Abraham to Jesus, as his own precursors. Under the caliphs that succeeded him, Jews and Christians were allowed to worship as they wished. A persistent historical characteristic of the Muslim religion has been its open tolerance of other faiths. Jews, with their two-thousand-year-old record of persecution in the Mediterranean and in Europe, have seldom (until recent times) been mistreated by Muslims and enjoyed perhaps their brightest moment of history in their participation in Islamic Spanish society in Al-Andalus (Andaluca) from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. The “golden age” of Spanish Jewry ended, and religious tolerance with it, when Islamic Granada fell to the Spaniards in 1492.
One way for the West to enhance its social and political under- standing of and communication with Muslim countries is for it to delve consciously into the riches of the Moorish European legacy. We can easily appreciate and honor modern Italy in memory of Europe’s great cultural debt to the Renaissance. Few would dispute the contribution of British Parliaments to democratic governance or American and German achievements in science and technology. Is the West aware of the past splendors of Arab civilization existing, moreover, on European soil? In fact, many of us are. In the year 2000 twenty million tourists visited Andaluca to enjoy not only the beaches but also the artifacts and relics of history and culture. They are dazzling.
Reference has been made in chapter 8 to the illustrious era of the Moorish civilization in southern Spain. In view of the preponderantly negative perception of Islam subsequent to the strike of September 11, this might be an opportune time to balance the scales somewhat by giving a kindly backward glance at the Moorish culture. It is said that Charles Martel saved the Western world by stopping the advancing Moors at Poitiers in 732, but from what? From a splendid Arab civilization that was shortly to develop in North Africa and the Mediterranean, a civilization where Jews, Christians, and Arabs would have lived together in peace and fruitful creativity. At that time the Islamic faith showed far greater respect for Christianity and Judaism—sister religions also based on the Old Testament—than the Christian Crusaders ever did toward the “heathens.” The Europeans in “conquered” Andaluca all spoke Arabic, published their books in the language, and even wrote Arabic poetry.
In the year 1000 (just a millennium ago), Cordoba was the greatest city in the world, far larger than London, Paris, or Rome at the time and far more advanced in art, science, and civic splendor. The Cordoba medina contained some 80,000 shops and workshops, and the city boasted 600 mosques, 300 baths, 50 hospitals, nearly 100 public schools, 17 colleges and universities, and 20 public libraries. Its population of one million enjoyed a high standard of living equaled in Seville, Granada, Toledo, and cities all the way across Southern Europe from Lisbon to Palermo. Nor was this civilization a flash in the pan that existed for just a moment in history. It began with the Moorish incursions into Spain in 711 and ended 781 years later with the fall of Islamic Granada. What a slice of history! If we go back 781 years in British history, we would just miss witnessing the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 by King John. In 1220 the first kingdom emerged in Thailand, and in North America the Aztecs began to spread across the valley of Mexico.
Such a long occupation as the Moors’ inevitably leaves an indelible imprint on the lives and minds of the subjugated peoples. Ask anyone in the Balkans about the 650 years of Ottoman rule and you will notice a certain lack of enthusiasm. Yet around the Mediterranean and particularly in southern Spain, there is almost a nostalgia for the golden age of the Moorish empire. European vocabulary—especially Spanish and Portuguese—is sprinkled with words of Arabic origin (algebra, alcove, Algarve, Alicante, Alhambra); Arab music gave us the flamenco; there would be no Spanish paella without the Arabs, who planted rice in Europe, not to mention the oranges, apricots, asparagus, and spinach that grace our menus. The durum wheat, which the Moors brought with them, gave birth to Italian pasta. The Mesquita in Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville, and, above all, the Alhambra in Granada captivate Western visitors with their unrivaled architectural magnificence and delicacy. The scented gardens, fountains, palms, and fig trees of the Arab cities hint at a paradise lost, where science, art, learning, and religious tolerance went hand in hand.
If Islamic architecture, art, and good living found favor with Europeans, it was perhaps in the field of science that Islam and the West had their most fruitful interaction. Inspired by ancient Hellenistic tradition, Muslims created a society in the Middle Ages that was the scientific center of the world. Arabic was as synonymous with science as English is today, and the Arabs dominated scientific studies for over five hundred years, during which time they founded universities and formulated the theoretical basis for algebra, astronomy, and even the notion of science as an empirical inquiry. It was the infusion of this knowledge into Western Europe that eventually fueled the Renaissance and, later, the scientific revolution. From the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, Europeans were translating Arabic works into Hebrew and Latin as fast as they could. Jews also played a significant part in this transfer of knowledge. The result was a rebirth of learning that ultimately transformed Western civilization. This is a fine example of how civilizations, instead of clashing, can learn from and shape each other. No intellectual meeting has been more fruitful than that between Islamic and Western science. Europeans and Americans should be grateful for that!
Many historians are of the opinion that this intellectual marriage was one of the most significant events of history. Unfortunately, only a certain number of the major scientific works from that era have been translated from Arabic. As thousands of manuscripts have never even been read by modern scholars, much of Islam’s rich intellectual history—which so convincingly belies the images caused by recent events—fails to reach us. Americans, particularly, might be favorably impressed by such a realization. A better understanding of how two cultures have mingled beneficially in the past (and for many centuries) might encourage a closer cooperation in the future.
But what about the Crusades and the hostilities and enmity dating from 1096? It is true that the massacres occurred on a scale unprecedented at that time, but on the occasions when leniency was granted, it was generally the Muslims who showed mercy. Although they are much touted as glorious feats of heroism for the sake of Christianity, the Crusades were an abysmal failure.
The First Crusade, a holy war waged from 1096–1099 by Christian armies from Western Europe against Islam in Palestine, was inspired by a fiery sermon of Pope Urban II in 1095. One of its leaders, Godfrey of Bouillon, established the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem—a rare triumph in the dismal record of the Crusades. The Second Crusade (1147–1149) was led by Louis VII of France and collapsed ignominiously when their Christian men in place—the barons of Jerusalem—sided with Muslim Damascus, which the newly arrived Crusaders wished to attack. The Third Crusade (1189–1192), led by Richard the Lionheart, among others, failed dismally in its objective to recapture Jerusalem, which had been taken by the Muslim leader, Saladin. However, the Muslims generously ceded a stretch of coast between Tyre and Jaffa and allowed Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The leaders of the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204) had originally planned to attack Egypt, which had become the center of Muslim power in the twelfth century, but they were diverted by the Venetians to Constantinople, which fell on April 13, 1204, and was subjected to three days of massacre and pillage. A horrified Pope Innocent III, who had called for the Crusade, was unable to regain control of the chaos and called off the next leg to the Holy Land.
Such was the fiasco of the medieval Crusades—true religious wars inasmuch as Crusaders had the status of pilgrims and Muslims could claim to be martyrs—but futile and unnecessary in their scope and intent. What’s important here for us to learn is that the fears that engendered Christian hatred of the Muslims were a mirror image of today’s Muslim resentment of “the great satan” of the West: fears of a culture labeled alien, of superior wealth and might. Study of the shambolic nature of the Crusades should lead both sides to see the utter futility of and misplaced desire for a holy war.
Ironically, all four Crusades took place in a period of history when Muslims were collaborating with and teaching advanced forms of knowledge to Christians all over Southern Europe. Even in the midst of the hostilities, Christians and Muslims were exchanging culture and growing in awareness of what they had in common. In frontier zones adherents of both religions lived side by side, worshipped at each other’s shrines, served each other’s masters, and took each other’s side in many disputes. El Cid, the hero of the Spanish Crusades, spent most of his career, after he left Castile, in the service of Muslim emirs. Islamic beneficence and tolerance in Spain continued for nearly three hundred years after the last Crusade.
We find, then, that the friendly, even mutually enriching coexistence between Muslims and Westerners that we see in Europe and North America today is nothing new. It is, and was, the rule rather than the exception. Friction between Muslims and Christians and between Muslims and Jews is usually less than that observed between some Catholic and Protestant communities (Northern Ireland) or rival Muslim groups (Sunnis and Shiites). Muslim settlement in the West is an established and most likely permanent fact. Islamic extremism in these countries is rare; in Britain, for example, out of some 1,500 mosques, only a couple are known to be run by extremists. Muslims make up some 7 percent of the population in France, 4 percent in the Netherlands, 4 percent in Germany, 3 percent in Britain, 2 percent in Spain, and 1 percent in Scandinavia and Italy. In general European Muslims are good citizens and do better at school than their Western classmates. They often suffer discrimination with commendable patience. They harbor no “Islamic conspiracy” against the West, largely because they themselves have diverse agendas. Germany’s Muslims, for example, are largely Turks and have little loyalty to Palestinians. Shiite Muslims of Lebanese origin have no particular interest in the Sunni Muslims of North Africa or in the Algerian civil war. British Pakistani Muslims are more concerned with beating England at cricket than with the fall of Kandahar. The French, naturally, assume that their Muslims are only too glad to adopt a superior culture—the French! The United States, though the victim of extremism in the recent past, has historically assimilated its seven million Muslims of all races with the same ease that it has absorbed other nationalities, and there is a long queue of Islamic applicants for admittance to the U.S. Arab Americans are generally successful economically; there is no doubt which side they are on. Ten days after the strike, the American Muslim leader Imam Izak El-Pacha condemned the terrorists, stating simply that they were not believers. “As for us, we are with our country.” This is likely to be the attitude of the great majority of immigrant Muslims. The 40,000 Afghan Americans in the San Francisco Bay area displayed their American flags following the September attacks and during the struggle for Kabul. Fremont, California, with its 10,000 Afghans is known as “little Kabul.”
Prophets of doom (and gloom), especially Westerners, practically fell over themselves in the days following September 11 to be the first to predict a century of strife when Muslims worldwide would coordinate their terrorist attacks until the United States was brought to its knees. These calamitous prophecies were neither supported nor reiterated by Islamic authorities around the globe. Scrutiny of Muslim-Christian relations during centuries of proximity in Europe and more recently in the U.S. indicate clearly that this is not in the cards. The Crusades may have lasted over a century—in itself a mere blip in human history—and we can see what exercises in futility they were. In the 1,300 years that Islam has existed, Islamic Iberia shone like a beacon for nearly 800 of those years, as a model state unsurpassed in intelligence and tolerance since the Hellenistic heyday.
The Islamic condemnation of the September 11 strike was universal, unambivalent, and expressed in terms of shock. The stag- gering number of those killed and injured quickly put things into perspective. Kill a few undeserving infidels, maybe, but such calculated mass execution of innocent people (office workers) besmirched the Muslim reputation indelibly (and perhaps indefinitely). If the Muslim greeting “Assalamu ’a laykum” (“Peace be upon you”) means anything at all, where did the Manhattan and Washington, D.C. disasters leave devout Muslims? How would Muhammad have reacted? The damage to the image of Islam was no less than that inflicted on Catholicism by the brutalities of the Spanish Inquisition. If Osama Bin Laden was responsible, he cannot be a martyr now or in the future. Islamic authorities see him as a cult leader, and, like most Western cults, this one will likely end in suicide and death. The Taliban, in their turn, are regarded by an overwhelming majority of Muslims as being fanatical and backward, with an outdated aim of igniting a clash of civilizations. With the increasingly widespread dissemination of knowledge through the Internet, a war of any duration between rival civilizations becomes increasingly improbable. Islam and Christianity have too much common heritage to lose. Ironically, such a battle might be seen as only a lively skirmish by the majority of humanity—the one billion Hindus and two billion Confucians would not necessarily feel involved!
Islamic scholars point out that they are not basically against the West (many of whose traditions were tempered by Muslims). What they are fearful of is the power and influence of the West inside their own Muslim societies. Oil interests loom large in this respect, though other forms of intervention also cause friction. Muslim-Christian interaction in the past has frequently been benign. The cultures shaped one another warmly in less materialistic times. There is an opportunity for Muslims, now, to shape Western culture from within, by virtue of the stable Islamic communities currently existing in Western countries. Equally important, the West has the opportunity to let them do this. In Britain, the United States, and other Western countries, there is a growing acceptance of and interest in Muslim food, art, music, dance, and architecture, and also to some extent in fashion and medicine. Some essentially Islamic values such as family closeness, loyalty, hospitality, and so forth may gain increasing support early in the twenty-first century. Islamic attractions such as the Alhambra, Petra, Jerash, Istanbul, and the Valley of the Nile are magnets for tourists. Not least, Islam continues to gain large numbers of converts in Europe and the U.S.
The Islamic revival, which was inspired by the Iranian Revolution and which continues today, is less concerned with unbelievers than it is with its own reforms. The revival is directed inward in an attempt to heal the schism within Islam itself. The Taliban, the Al Qaeda, and their ilk are by no means synonymous with this revival. They are regarded as a dying breed whose Manhattan and Washington, D.C., ventures may be a desperate last- ditch effort to gain control of Muslim direction. Extremists believe that time is on their side. More likely it is running out, especially in the Muslim world. Terrorists cannot hijack a respected religion of 1,300 years any more than the grand master of the KuKlux Klan could become president of the United States.
By definition, moderates outnumber extremists, and this is also true in the Arab world, where piety and devoutness are admired qualities. Furthermore, more than half the one billion Muslims in the world are not Arabs. While 300 million Southeast Asians may be vociferous in their criticism of the United States, few have the temperament to become suicide bombers. Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and other Central Asians have their own agendas.
The trauma and suffering experienced by Americans and other nationalities in September 2001 should not fool the West into believing that the moment was one of Muslim triumph, with the corollary, Western demise. It is rather Islam that meets its moment of truth, after decades of difficulties and turmoil. In the 1990s, alone, problems ranged from wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya to revolt in East Timor, independence movements in Sumatra and Borneo, repeated hostilities in Kashmir, civil wars in Algeria and the Philippines, bombings and assassinations in Palestine and Gaza, killings in Ambon, explosive incidents in Somalia and Aden, and the destruction of Buddhist treasures in Afghanistan. Muslims seemed to be involved in all the world’s current squabbles. As Islam has no core country, these problems could not be laid at the door of any unifying authority. If the West has its world policeman (the U.S.) and East Asia, its two powerful custodians of morality and order (China and Japan), the world’s Muslims are torn apart by a multiplicity of interests and agendas. How can Moroccans address Filipino problems or Malaysians advise Turks? Indeed, has Islam ever spoken with one voice?
If it has, it was to reiterate anti-American sentiment. Indeed the United States is not blameless in respect to the current Arab and Islamic malaise (more on this later in this chapter). Yet it is apparent that “the great Satan” is often made the scapegoat for the internal schism within Islam. Inequality of distribution of wealth and power is most visible in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but it is also endemic in North Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and elsewhere. Continuing poverty and lack of re- course to democratic reform blight the chances of the majority of Muslims to better their lot. Resentment of American and even European prosperity is a natural consequence. Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Yemen are beginning to experiment with democratic elections and withdrawal of some forms of censorship, but Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime remains in itself one of the root causes of Islamic extremism.
Even a gradual evolution toward democracy in Muslim states will relieve the tension between Islam and the West. Democratic countries rarely go to war with each other. Democracy allows oppressed or hungry peoples a voice to complain with—a route to secure compromise, which moderates extreme conduct. The second largest Muslim country in the world, India, with its 150 million adherents, is conspicuously absent in plans to dismantle the United States. Indian Muslims have recourse to legal parliamentary debate and argument.
Scholars have asked themselves why Islam failed to capitalize on its intellectual superiority and dominant position in science at the time of the Renaissance and to make the transition to a modern society as other Mediterranean cultures—for instance, Italy— have done. Europeans absorbed Arab knowledge, applied it pragmatically, and went on to develop empirical science leading to industrial technology. Why did Islam not do the same?
Changes in the balance of power had something to do with it. While the Crusades achieved little from the European point of view, the growing Franco-German hegemony over most of Western Europe, allied to the increasing influence and commercial acumen of the British Empire, gradually wrested leadership in science and commerce from the Arabs’ grasp. Driven out of Spain at the end of the fifteenth century, deprived of their magnificent libraries in Cordoba and Toledo, they began to lose their intellectual base (you might say their head office). Islamic knowledge, science, and philosophy were channeled in different directions, and pan-Islamic communication, strong in the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, was lost and has never been fully reestablished. The Ottomans, who took over the Arab lands in the sixteenth century, were conquerors, not thinkers, and the fruitful interplay between Islamic and Western intellects virtually disappeared.
There was a significant Islamic revival in the hundred years following 1520, but it had a strong military underpinning and was Ottoman- rather than Arab-driven . Three major Muslim states emerged: the Ottoman Empire itself, the Safavid dynasty in Persia, and the Mughal Empire in India. All three were the creation of Turkish-speaking Muslim dynasties of a military character. When Vienna was besieged in 1529, the Ottomans were indisputably the greatest Muslim power of the age. Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman sultan, commanded fourteen million subjects, almost twice the population of Spain and England combined.
In spite of Ottoman power, the Islamic world of that age had one serious flaw: the schism between Sunni Muslims (adherers to the first four caliphs as the rightful successors of Muhammad) and Shiite Muslims (those who acknowledge Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad, and the Imams as the rightful successors of Muhammad). The Ottomans and the Mughal Empire adhered to the orthodox Sunni sect. The Persians, however, followed Shi’ism, which drove a wedge into the Muslim world, one that has existed to the present. Just as the Ottomans sided with the French against the Hapsburgs, the Persians took the other side, allying themselves with Austria. Such cultural traits and divisions run through history. We see them still, 450 years later, in the rancor between Iran (Shiite) and a Sunni-controlled government in Iraq.
The second basic weakness of sixteenth-century Muslim empires was that they were essentially land empires at a time when the maritime powers of Spain and Portugal were dominating the waters of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean respectively. When the British and Dutch added their sea power to the equation, Muslims were outgunned and outmaneuvered. Muscovy, too, began to raise its head, and in 1620 Cossack raiders appeared on the Black Sea and ravaged its shores. Thus the great Islamic empires of the previous centuries failed to make the transition to the modern world.
Scholars point out, however, that the decline of Islamic society was not occasioned purely by military or economic reverses. In the sixteenth century, the West effectively separated religious and state authority. This has never been achieved in Muslim states (Iran and Saudi Arabia are examples of countries where the two are currently synonymous). The relationship between religion and science is such that one precludes the other. Some Islamic scientists and historians affirm that “Islamic science” may be fruitfully informed by spiritual values that Western science ignores. The opposite view is that religious conservatism will serve to diminish the spirit of skepticism required for progressive science. Certainly Eastern science has fallen behind that of the pragmatic West. Western philosophers assert that truth is best discovered through reason, which is authentic on its own terms and needs no theological basis—Arabs would be reluctant to agree. Whatever the arguments, it seems evident that the development of modern institutions in the Islamic world will continue to be hampered until independent civil societies emerge and survive. Turkey and the Philippines currently seem nearest to the separation of religion and state. However much the West would like to foster that emergence, it will ultimately come from within—hopefully by peaceful means.
What is becoming clear is that Islamic fundamentalism (by no means universally popular among Muslims) lacks intellectual rigor and has difficulty responding adequately to the demands of twenty-first-century society. What is needed is an evolving message from the Qu’ran itself, not that of the mullahs reaching back to the phraseology of a millennium ago. Islamic intellectualism is by no means dead—it is simply suppressed in different ways and by different means. A more modern and applicable theology will emerge, probably sooner than later. Whether the lead will come from the Arab world, the East (Indonesia and Malaysia), or perhaps from Iran remains to be seen.
The roots of the bone-shaking crisis arising from September 11, 2001, need careful examination and analysis. Islamic clamor and criticism are persistent, but so is Western cultural myopia. How thick-skinned can we be? We have two thousand years of well- documented history behind us; all necessary knowledge is at our fingertips. Economic and military successes and failures follow each other with bewildering speed and kaleidoscopic variety. Cultural traits, races, and religions endure for centuries—even millennia. They are the only predictable courses.
Small, alert nationals such as the Danes, Dutch, Finns, and Swiss are very interested in the mentalities and behavior of large countries with which they have trade relations or social inter- course, and they develop a fair degree of cultural sensitivity, which serves them well. As nationals, they find they are generally popular when they travel abroad. Unfortunately, large nations tend to neglect other cultures and to focus inwardly on the magnificence of their own society (past or present). Britain, France, and Spain had recent empires that engendered not a little arrogance. Russia, China, and Japan, historically isolated countries, are also inward-looking and to a large extent unaware of cross-cultural currents. The United States, unfortunately, is the least culturally sensitive of all, partly because of its isolation between two vast oceans and partly due to its envelopment in the fog of the American Dream. The Dream came to an abrupt (and unhappy) end on September 11, 2001. It may be continued at a later time, but for now reality has to be dealt with.
American cultural insensitivity is more of a tragedy than it would be for other nations, for the United States is the only superpower. The well-being of the West—and, indeed, most of the rest of the world—depends, and will depend, on intelligent and well-informed decisions made by the leaders of the United States. This is where we are at this moment in history. The record so far is not good. The American people generously employed up to 100,000 individuals in the CIA and FBI, who disposed of a budget of something between 20 to 30 billion dollars to protect them (and many of us). They needed to develop a “feel”—dare we say a cultural orientation—for future events, especially dangers.
American intelligence failed to predict Pearl Harbor, in spite of the fact that more than half the Japanese fleet steamed across much of the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese invasion of Korea caught them by surprise, as did the Hungarian revolt and the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. They learned very late about the Soviet siting of missiles in Cuba, advised Kennedy badly in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, confidently predicted victory in Vietnam, and asserted the solidity of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe just weeks before the Berlin Wall came down. The utter disintegration of the USSR astonished them. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait caught them napping in an area where the protection of oil supplies is vital to U.S. interests. It took an army of 500,000 to rectify that one, though the chief villain was not caught. At least the United States was invulnerable to any major attack on its own soil, or so the country thought. In fact, the World Trade Center (WTC) had been targeted before; Russian president Vladimir Putin warned of an international terrorist plot; numerous intelligence sources predicted that an assault on mainland America was imminent. All warnings, however, foundered on the rocks of CIA and FBI smugness and complacency and on the agencies’ failure to share information. What could foreigners re- ally tell an organization that had a spy satellite system so powerful that it could identify cigarette butts on the streets of Baghdad? Did it really matter that American spymasters had precious little training in spying, spoke no language except English, and had received no cultural instruction about the people they were spying on? With a quarter of a million computers on the job, why shouldn’t most case officers live comfortably in the suburbs of Virginia?
If one is critical of American cultural navet, one must remember that it is principally at America’s own cost. But in this instance the price paid for the sloppiness of the intelligence services was terrible. Suicide terror has, in fact, a long history. At least fifty terrorists coordinated the WTC, Pentagon, and failed Washington, D.C. strike from within the United States itself. They were not detected (or at least not foiled), even though witnesses report that some of them went around boasting about a catastrophe to come and made unusual demands at flight schools and odd inquiries about crop dusting. If one does not wish to listen to one’s friends, one should at least listen to one’s enemies.
Cultural insensitivity at the beginning of the new century seems to know no bounds. The IMF’s somewhat ill-judged prediction that the World Trade Center disaster “will have only limited impact on the international economy” makes one wonder if they are just trying to talk up the market or whether such an important institution is simply incapable of comprehending the magnitude of the culture ripples which will ensue for several decades.
Insensitivity at the government level is also rampant in the United States. If the administration persists in unilaterally rewriting the global financial system, tearing up or backing out of treaties on pollution and environmental control, supporting dictators or unpalatable regimes who are clearly detested by their own subjects and antithetical to its own stated values of democracy and individual rights, is it surprising that the American people have to ask themselves the question, “Why do they hate us so much?” Indeed one’s heart can bleed for them, for they are perhaps the most generous (and innocent) people on earth, but in a world in which their governmental and business leaders wish to globalize capitalism, a unilaterally assertive stance will engender a love- hate relationship at best.
Two hundred years of invulnerability at home gave the United States a holiday from history. Now they are engaged, for better or for worse. Placid Canada is the only safe frontier. Technology has replaced geographical isolation. China, Japan, Russia, and ultimately India will also be drawn increasingly into international interaction and interdependence. The largest nations will have to agree on a mutually acceptable strategy for intervention in others’ affairs. Such issues, in the context of creeping globalization, will prove less prickly than they have been in the past. International aid is commonplace. In fact, sixty nations met early in 2002 to raise over four billion dollars for the rebuilding of a destroyed Afghanistan. Mdecins sans frontires is a positive concept. Still, many questions remain. For example, how much should a world power intervene to prevent mass slaughter or genocide, especially in the case of a neighbor? Should one not make every effort to stave off the financial or economic collapse of big countries like Argentina, Brazil, or Indonesia, where disintegration would have a domino effect on partners in commerce? How strong should the imperative be for nations to conform to treaties protecting the environment? What can nations do together about global warming, deforestation, and soil erosion? Most importantly of all in the first decade of the century, how much solidarity can be created against international terrorism?
There are some grounds for optimism regarding the last vital question. The reason for this lies in the essentially evil nature and deadly finality of the four September 11 strikes. It is too much for any rationality, Western or Islamic, to bear. It was the ultimate blow, the ne plus ultra of strikes. The World Trade Center towers were an unmistakable commercial symbol of the United States, in a sense its beating heart. A dagger was plunged into that heart. It is staggering to imagine what the corresponding attack would be on the Muslim world. To achieve equivalent symbolism, it would be on the mosque in Mecca itself. For Catholics it would be the destruction of the Vatican, for Britain the blowing up of Parliament. It is not unreasonable to believe that such disasters will not occur—we have to place so much belief in the human sense of right and wrong. The shock waves still reverberate; perhaps a viable perspective has come into being. Knocking over skyscrapers is a risky business, and Manhattan does not have a monopoly on them. Islamic Malaysia has just constructed the tallest building in the world. China hopes to go one higher and has plenty more, not only in Hong Kong.
More than one commentator has declared that September 11, 2001, was the true millennium—an analysis that contains some truth inasmuch as it is a watershed in human expectations.
Robert Samuelson in his article “The Grand Illusion” in Newsweek, questions the continued dominance of the United States in the twenty-first century. He cites the dangers of nuclear proliferation, anti-Western terrorism, recessions and swings in financial markets, and technological breakdowns (through accident or sabotage). If the global economy sputters, he sees the American model of economic and political pluralism foundering. On the other hand, if democracy and market economies flourish, he sees the U.S. share of the world economy declining. Either way, a sad story.
But it is a mistake to write off the West. In the first place, it is not only the United States that we should focus on. If indeed the Islamic revival continues and if China fulfills its current promise, the corollary of such developments would be a more unified West. The U.S. is a product of Western civilization, with roots in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Scandinavia, and practically every other European country. Its ultimate cultural alliance with the European Union is highly probable, if not inevitable, if Western civilization itself is threatened. We must remember what happened in two world wars when the chips were down. Next time it is likely that Germany will be on the team. The durability of a balanced West (the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, Latin America, New Zealand) resides not only in its military and economic strengths, formidable though these still are, but in the matured resilience of Western values. These values were forged in the crucible of the Greek city-states but have been tempered through the centuries by the Reformation and the Renaissance, by embracing democracy, by vanquishing the bogeys of Nazism and communism, and by defining the culture of Western Europe and the New World. They include openness, freedom of speech, a sense of justice, respect for the law, use of reason, religious tolerance, the seeking of fair play and impartiality, a sense of humor and proportion, an acceptance of civic responsibility, and a belief in universal human rights and human dignity. Some of these characteristics, such as openness, transparency, a reluctance to fight, and the extension of legal protection to criminals, are seen as weaknesses, even as signs of decadence.
I believe that the West, in spite of the huge forthcoming advances in Eastern and Islamic societies, will continue to acquit itself well in the twenty-first century. What it has going for it, in addition to the core values described above, is a plethora of social and semipolitical institutions—they number in the thousands—between the bedrock of the family and the authority of the state. In many societies there is a social vacuum between the home and job. In Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries in particular, but also generally in Europe, clubs, societies, associations, activities, sports, courses, and hobbies of all kinds keep people busy. This is the dense fabric of Western society—active, throbbing, inventive, in every sense self-perpetuating and indomitable, with a momentum all its own.
If such social vibrancy is Western in essence, it is epitomized in the United States. As Hamish McRae wrote recently as he watched Americans rise phoenixlike from the ashes and rubble of Ground Zero, the future starts here.
If I may allow myself one final note of optimism vis--vis Islamic-driven terrorism, I will refer to an important factor that seems to be overlooked by political commentators and futurologists. Of the much-discussed one-billion-strong multitude of Muslims in the world, over five hundred million of them are women. There are strong indications to suggest that the twenty- first century will be a period of rapidly rising female influence and empowerment, from which Muslim women cannot be indefinitely excluded. I am of the opinion that gender-liberation issues will be higher on these women’s agenda than lending continuing support to the supposed destruction of the West, whose way of life embodies the social qualities they must ultimately seek.